Israeli gays shun condoms despite worrying rise in AIDS
Health Ministry reports 360 people diagnosed with HIV in 2007, nearly half of them homosexual men.
Ro'i, 26, grew up in an Orthodox home. About 10 years ago, when he began having sex with men, he lived with a strong sense of sin. Now, after becoming accustomed to it, he has discovered that he faces another kind of prohibition. He has found the new sense of sin in sexual relations without a condom.
"Sex without a condom excited me because of the prohibition involved," he says. "Every type of homosexual sex is forbidden by the Torah, and there is something arousing about the very transgression against the prohibition. So apparently I'm looking for another prohibition, which will be even stronger."
A few weeks ago Ro'i met another young man who was looking for sex in a gay chat room. When they spoke via the chat room, Ro'i asked his future partner about his preferences. "I told him that I wanted to do it without a condom, and I asked him if that was acceptable to him. He immediately said yes. Afterward, when we spoke over the phone, I asked him again. When we actually met, during the act itself, I was the one who was somewhat afraid without a condom, but he was really enthusiastic and made sure it would happen."
Ro'i does not conduct all his sexual encounters without a condom, but recently it has been happening with increasing frequency. "It's exciting. The moment you use something unnatural, that reduces the pleasure considerably," he says.
Going with the flow
Yoav, 28, says the entire issue of the condom makes sex much less attractive, "something a little bit technical." "That moment when you say 'just a second' and put on a condom, for me that's a real turn-off. Usually I don't actually talk about it, I just go with the flow. Some guys suddenly stop everything and ask, 'Wait a minute, what about the condom?' But most of the men really don't ask. I'm not afraid anymore either. I used to be much more worried, but now AIDS isn't in my system any more. As far as I'm concerned, the period when they frightened you all the time is over."
The trend of casual sex without a condom is spreading in the Western world, and in Israel, too. "Most of the young gays today have never seen a person suffering from AIDS," says Dr. Gideon Hirsch, CEO of the Israel AIDS Task Force (IATF). "Since 1996, AIDS has been defined as a 'chronic disease.' Young men have taken on that idea, and no longer relate to AIDS as an illness that causes death. They are far less frightened of AIDS. It's hard to explain the danger to them. They consider AIDS a theoretical problem. But, of course, when people are examined and are found to be HIV positive, their world falls apart."
Last week the Health Ministry published worrisome statistics regarding an increase in the number of AIDS carriers in Israel. According to the data, 360 people were diagnosed as HIV positive in 2007, as compared to 336 in 2006. The sharpest increase was recorded among men who engaged in homosexual relations: At least 109 gay men were infected with the disease last year, as compared to 77 in 2006. Sixty percent of the new cases took place among young men aged 18-25, usually as a result of sexual relations without a condom. According to the IATF, there is a decline in awareness regarding unprotected sex.
According to Hirsch, "as far as I know, Israel is now in first place in the world for gay men testing HIV positive. We hold the world record in the rate of annual increase in these cases."
Porn promoting the trend
About a decade ago a marginal culture of unprotected sex began to spread in the homosexual world. The widespread trend, which is called "barebacking," has innumerable sites and communities on the Internet. The homosexual porn industry also contributes to encouraging the phenomenon: According to a British study, 60 percent of porno films for the homosexual community show unprotected sex, and the percentage is increasing. The subject attracted attention recently when four porno actors became infected with AIDS during the shooting of one film.
According to psychotherapist Dr. Gidi Rubinstein of the Netanya Academic College, homosexuals who engage in sex without a condom are deliberating risking their lives.
"This playing with sex and death arouses them sexually," says Rubinstein, who runs the "shrink-friendly" forum that advises homosexuals. He says that this behavior is common mainly among young men who regularly engage in one-night stands. "In many cases, the risk increases the pleasure of men who are looking for excitement. For example, we are witnessing a phenomenon that was unknown in the past, of sex in public places, even among straight teenagers and young adults."
However, Rubinstein points out that there are many homosexuals who still report an extreme fear of AIDS. "A large percentage of my patients suffer from anxiety, an overdose of caution and avoidance of sexual relations," he says.
Hirsch does not agree with Rubinstein's viewpoint. He says that irresponsible behavior is not a deliberate decision, but stems from apathy.
"I don't know if there's a real social phenomenon here," he says. "I think people simply want to have sex indiscriminately, and feel that the condom prevents the highest level of intimacy. People have a strong urge not to use this means. To get people to use a condom, which is opposed to human nature, you have to drill it into them at the right age."
The IATF blames the Health Ministry for reducing the resources for AIDS information campaigns, just when such information is particularly necessary.
It says that government support of the task force has shrunk by 90 percent. "There is a total absence of investment in prevention on the part of the Health Ministry," says Hirsch.
Another factor that Hirsch mentions as contributing to the increase in HIV is the growing use of alcohol and "party drugs."
Hirsch says these substances dull the senses and reduce the strength of the erection, mainly when a condom is used. "In that way, the drugs increase the avoidance of condom use even more," he says.
The Health Ministry said in response that it "contemptuously rejects the old and oft-repeated claims of the IATF. The Health Ministry attributes great importance to cooperation with representatives and organizations from the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities, and cooperates successfully with the association [for these groups] and the Open House organization."